Covering the major aspects of digital painting, written for artists, art students, art historians, galleries, curators, collectors and art lovers. For a brief overview, follow the link to: DIGITAL PAINTING, a brief overview
Updated since 2013. Last revision September 23, 2017
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Differences in procedure
Digital and physical carrier
Uniqueness and limited editions
Computer generated, raster, vector
Digital painting and photography
Size, resolution, enlargement
Correction of raster painting enlargement
Quality-quantity convention, limited editions
Collecting digital art, assessment
Market for digital art
A 'digital' painting is created on the computer using a graphics program, a virtual paintbox with brushes, colors and other supplies. The box contains instruments that cannot exist outside the computer and which make a digital artwork distinctly different from an artwork that is made in the traditional manner. Once finished, the painting is usually transferred to a physical carrier like paper, dibond, perspex, allowing it to hang on the wall.
The visual characteristics derive from the power of the computer to
attach geometrical formulas to lines, shapes and forms. While it is
impossible for a human hand to create exactly identical shapes, or to
construct a perfect circle or a perfectly straight line, for a
computer it is difficult to do anything else. Formula-based forms are
easy to recognize by a degree of perfection that is literally inhuman.
Other specific traits are: transparency, symmetry, regular distortion,
exact repetition, perfect circles, squares and other shapes, embossing
and other 3D illusion, very smooth gradients, and perfectly monochrome
color planes. The sharp and bold appearance of formula-based 'vector'
forms reminds of paper cut-outs and stencil art. Alone or in
combination with stroke-by-stroke 'raster' painting, it creates a
language of color and form that is entirely new and could in no way be
expressed with 'real' paints and brushes.
A further characteristic is the total flatness of the physical representation, due to the technical impossibility to translate brushstrokes to surface texture. Although many art lovers still prefer the artisanal appearance of real paint on canvas, a digital artwork has a look of straightforwardness and clearness that is quite appealing once you get used to it - in particular on carriers that support rather than conceal these qualities, such as fine art paper, brushed aluminum, xpozer, perspex, etc.
In most programs it is possible to undo many (or all) brush strokes or other actions without a trace. This permits a much more spontaneous, intuitive process than is possible in traditional painting. The possibility to use already existing images as input is not an exclusive feature of digital painting. A photo or digital image is easily projected on canvas and painted over with real paint. Many traditional painters as well, don't start from an empty canvas or a white paper.
When the digital artist is done, the painting is on the hard disk of a computer. To make it presentable and sale-able it is transferred to a physical carrier. Since the flatness of the representation is close to photo art, photo carriers (e.g. dibond, fine art paper, polyester) are most widely chosen as physical carriers. What happens to the digital carrier depends on how the artist wants to offer the painting. For an original, the digital carrier is either deleted or transferred to the buyer. For a series, the artist will delete the digital carrier once the prefixed number of copies is sold. For an open ended series, the digital carrier remains on the harddisk of the artist. The buyer should be informed about the status of the digital carrier.
Though it is obvious that forms and shapes that are characteristic for digital painting cannot be transmitted to a physical carrier by hand, the implication is often overlooked: a digital artwork, in its physical representation, is always a print. If a print on a physical carrier is painted over with real paint, it is categorized as a painting.
There is a common misunderstanding that a print cannot be a
numerously unique work of art. It certainly can, and often is. The
number of possibilities to effectively protect limited editions is
steadily increasing. A primary protective measure is to hand-sign or
fingerprint the work and mention the edition on the artwork itself.
The use of a certificate has become standard practice. Although a
certificate offers no technical protection against duplication, it is
possible to attach an individual digimark, watermark or hologram
containing the name of the artist and the edition, of which a clone is
attached to the artwork. Security holograms are difficult to forge
because they are replicated from a master hologram which requires
expensive, specialized and technologically advanced equipment. They
are used in banknotes, passports, credit cards as well as
identification cards around the world. Large online galleries
keep artworks online with the clear message 'sold' when the edition is
finished. Online registration at a trusted third party is at the time
of writing (2017) only possible for prints on paper (Hahnemühle). As
to the full-size image file, the artist shares it only with a
professional printer and deletes it from the computer after the sale.
It is good practice for printing companies to safely store artworks
and delete them after delivery.
Based on differences in method and appearance, four mainstreams can
- Computer generated painting. Characteristics of digital painting are present. The resolution is optimal (the highest printable) and size is flexible (the largest printable).
- Raster painting. Characteristics of digital painting are largely absent. Resolution and size are fixed.
- Vector painting.Characteristics of digital painting are present. The resolution is optimal (the highest printable) and the size is flexible (the largest printable).
-Vector-raster painting. Characteristics of digital painting are present. Resolution and size are fixed.
Computer generated painting
Both in procedure and in appearance, a raster, grid, or bitmap painting resembles most closely a traditional painting with real brushes and paint. The image is created on the screen with a virtual brush in a spontaneous, stroke by stroke manner. Colors and lines are registered pixel by pixel. They are not summarized and translated into formulas. In this way, forms and lines preserve all the characteristics of the individual painter's hand. A main disadvantage is that the image resolution is fixed. Often, the length and width of the creation is as small as a (mobile) computer screen and the resolution as low as the standard of 72 dots per inch on the web. If a raster image is to be transferred to a physical carrier of a customary size, it has to be enlarged considerably. Enlargement entails manual correction, a process that is complicated by the size of the file, which grows with enlargement and can become difficult to handle.
A vector painting is made by choosing basic shapes like circles, triangles and squares, or by painting them freehand, and then manipulating and transforming them with special tools. The rather elaborate proces - it somewhat resembles fine needlework - is less suitable for intuitive, spontaneous work than raster. All lines and shapes are captured into geometrical formulas, which leaves no room for characteristics of the individual painter's hand. The advantage is that files are small and can be enlarged to any size (within a vector program) without loss of sharpness. The resolution is always the maximum printable. Formalized shapes and forms obey to all kinds of one-click operations such as change color, make transparant, emboss, flip, group, cast shadow, etc. The mathematical basis for smoothing and manipulating lines and forms are 'Bezier curves', named after a French engineer at the Renault automobile factury who in 1962 developed a practical use for the Bernstein polynomial.
Vector-raster painting combines the individual characteristics of raster with formula-based lines and forms of vector. Full control and a visual contrast between vector and raster forms is obtained by working on separate layers or in separate programs for vector and raster, respectively. The raster elements loose sharpness when enlarged, which necessitates manual correction. Some painting programs (e.g. ArtRage) use Bezier curves in the background to smooth all lines and curves without intervention of the artist. The painting procedure is spontaneus, stroke by stroke, and the output is a fixed resolution raster file. The smooth, non-raster, non-vector appearance of the painting reflects the hybrid basis. An advantage for the painter is that smoothing reduces the loss of resolution when the image is enlarged.
Over the centuries, artists have used a variety of tools to bring the outside world on their canvas as raw material to be digested, translated, molded into their subjective interpretation. It is nothing new that painters use a camera, but the digital process makes a long standing practice a lot easier. Often, a photographer uses the same program for editing a photo as the artist for creating a painting. The shared toolbox establishes a transition zone between photography and painting. If the photo is used as input in a creative process that leads to an individual artwork, classification is not always easy. The photo can be projected on a physical carrier and painted over, in which case the digital characteristics are largely lost and it becomes a 'traditional painting'. If the creative process is carried out on the computer and the work is printed, it is generally classified as 'digital photo art', 'new photography' or digital 'photo painting', depending on the kind of operations and the toolbox that the artist has chosen.
Common file formats for raster, grid or bitmap painting are:
.jpg (Joint Photographic Group)
.gif (Graphics Interchange Format)
.tiff (Tagged Image File Format)
.png (Portable Network Graphics)
File formats for vector painting:
.svg (Scalable Vector Graphics);
.eps (Encapsulated Postscript Format)
.ai (Adobe Illustrator)
.wmf (Windows Meta File)
.emf (Enhanced Meta File)
Hybride file formats:
.pdf (Portable Document File) supports raster as well as vector painting. There are certain limitations for vector painting, however.
.psd (Photoshop Document) will save a raster painting as raster and a vector painting as vector.
As the artist increases the height and width of an existing image, its resolution - or information density - decreases and it will become vague. Resolution is usually expressed in 'dpi' (dots per inch). While the image on the screen already looks sharp at the standard resolution of 72 dpi for the web, a physical carrier needs at least 150-200 dpi, preferably 300. In addition, the physical carrier is usually much larger in height and width as well. For a vector painting, where colors and lines are controlled by formulas, enlargement requires nothing but a push on a button. To enlarge the lines and shapes of a raster painting, created on a pixel-by-pixel basis, is another matter entirely. Here, information will have to be added to fill in the empty space. This is usually done in two steps. The first is a rough push-button enlargement of the image by specialized software or simply by the 're-size' option in the painting program. The second step is a manual correction.
Considerable progress has been made in the enlargement of raster
images. The artist can invest in enlargement software, or use services
offered online by specialized companies. Still, it remains notoriously
difficult for even the best algorithms to convincingly fill in the
empty space between handmade lines and shapes of a raster painting.
Usually, part of determination and fluency is lost. Lines become
unsteady and crumbly and unintended 'noise' appears along the edges of
To illustrate this, the image above shows two different types of online enlargement of the same fragment of Pierre Bonnard's Getting out of the bath, executed with state-of-the-art software by a specialized company. We see part of Marthe's head and shoulder. Note how each method entails its own noise and deformation. The left is full of sawtooth edges, noise, and pixelated color patches, the one on the right (a vectorization) is nicely sharp but covered with typically angular color deformations. Usually, the artist chooses the method which works best for a particular painting, and then corrects the result by hand. As a rule, enlargement of a raster painting needs manual correction. This is not something to go about lightly. The considerably enlarged raster file can be difficult to handle. Depending on the speed of the computer and the chosen size and resolution of the image, the process can be slow or even come to a halt. The screen, of course, is not enlarged: the artist can no longer see the whole image and will have to zoom in and out frequently, switching between corrections and reviewing the results. There is clearly a trade-off between the swiftness and ease of raster painting on a small virtual canvas and the time and energy that will have to be spent on correction afterwards. Other factors that influence the correction load are the complexity of the image, the degree of enlargement, and the quality of enlargement software.
In order to see and to represent colors reliably, three things are
needed: (1) the individual screen should be calibrated, (2) a color
profile should be embedded in the artwork that matches the destination
(either the web or a printing company), and (3) the artist should work
with the color palette that matches the destination of the artwork.
To see. All computer screens deviate to some degree from the 'true', standard color values set by the international color convention (ICC). By calibrating the screen, deviations are corrected. For anyone working with colors it is absolutely necessary to calibrate the screen, and to repeat this regularly. A rough and imprecise calibration (by the naked eye) is usually offered in the settings under monitor (not advised for artists who print their work). Precise calibrations can only be done with a small measuring device that is attached to the screen. It calls up a number of colors and compares them with the ICC standard. Both methods, precise and imprecise, create an ICC monitor profile. This is a unique piece of software that corrects the individual screen and keeps it fixed to the standard. The monitor profile is automatically installed as the default and runs silently in the background. Its only task is to correct the monitor, and although this profile is listed between a whole range of optional profiles, and shows up in many settings, it has no further use. It is never embedded in an artwork.
To create. In some programs (e.g. Photoshop) the basic profile types, such as CMYK and RGB, have their corresponding palettes and matching color spectrum in the artist's workspace. It is advisable to work in the palette and the spectrum that matches the destination - CYMK for printing in color, RGB for display on the Internet, and grayscale for black and white.
To display and to print. In order to ensure that colors are faithfully represented, the artist needs to embed a color profile in the artwork that matches one of two destinations: either a webpage or a printing company. Embedding is usually done in the larger non-mobile painting programs (e.g. Photoshop). - If the image is to be displayed online, the sRGB profile should be embedded. Online display with a printing profile embedded does not give good results (see the image above). - If the artwork is to be printed, many printing profiles are available. The printer may ask the artist to embed one of the profiles that are present in most computers, or the company may supply an individual profile that is tailored to its machinery, ink, choice of paper etc. A print with the sRGB profile embedded can be an expensive failure. Most painting apps embed the sRGB profile without the option to change the profile. Some printing companies accept sRGB files and convert them to their own printing profile.
Display in browsers. Only a hard core of 216 colors is standardized between browsers. Most of the colors we see on the screen are interpretations by browsers and apps. The artist who aims to avoid online color deviation entirely, uses the 'web safe color palette'. This seriously limits the choice of colors. Even then, differences occur.
A stylus can be just as sensitive to the pressure of the hand as a 'real' brush. This pressure can be made visible on the screen, but, regrettably, not be translated into surface texture on a print. A printed artwork is entirely flat. Over the centuries, art lovers have felt the hand and the mood of the painter in brushstrokes and paint. Many artists as well, find that a painting entirely without texture is fine in a book, but just doesn't feel right on the wall. There are various answers to this problem. One is to project the digital work on a physical carrier and paint it over by hand, thereby using the computer as a handy preparatory device and sacrificing some or all of the digital characteristics. Another is to apply layers of clear glazing gel to the physical carrier to artificially recreate the brushstroke. Finally the artist may choose to adapt, by aiming at an illusion of texture and choosing a physical carrier that accentuates rather than conceals digital characteristics.
In traditional painting, the numbering of a limited edition by convention follows a quality/quantity notation 'i/n' in front of the artwork. 'i' indicates a rough ranking of the print according to technical and aesthetic quality (highest for i=1), while 'n' represents the size of the edition. Since all prints of a digital artwork are identical, the only meaning of 'i' is to indicate how many prints are still available, which may serve as a price-setting mechanism at auction-based market places. The information of 'n' is the same as in traditional painting and has economic significance for collectors and dealers. Following good practice, the digital artist or gallery determines a series to be 'open' or 'limited' prior to sale, and keeps register of the number of sold copies of a limited edition. Open series are referred to as '∞ ', and numerically unique prints as '1/1'. In the industrial printing process, the unnumbered run-up prints that are traditionally labeled as 'E.A.' (epreuve artiste) or 'A.P.' (artist's proof), still occur. These are mostly prints rejected by the artist because of an unsatisfactory representation of colors.
Qualities such as technique, resolution, color, can reasonably well be assessed online from a 1:1 detail of the artwork. For this to be effective, it is necessary that the screen of the collector is calibrated. The ideal means to judge a digital artwork is a sample of a 1:1 detail printed on the physical carrier. In addition, many collectors would like to distinguish what comes out of the app from what comes out of the artist. The emergence of a wide array of painting apps makes this an area of sound (and scarce) expertise. Ben Guerette's A Blog appArt gives insight into a wild variety of styles and seemingly impressive technical skills that are an attribute of the software. It is considered good practice for the artist to mention the software used in the description of the artwork.
The market for digital art is slowly maturing. Collectors start to realize that digital painting is a new visual language with characteristics that could not be obtained with traditional means. The first online auction, by the UK auction house Phillips in cooperation with Padle8, took place in 2013. Many technical problems have been solved. Color representation has become fairly reliable, thanks to the use of color profiles and calibration. The risk of duplication can never be excluded, but with standard precautions is now acceptably small. There are several large online galleries where both originals and prints of digital paintings are shipped worldwide with good sales conditions. Major issues are traditional gallery representation and exhibition opportunity. It is difficult for digital painters to find representation. Exhibition possibilities are limited to - few and costly - juried international exhibitions. Most depend exclusively on online galleries. If we conclude that many technical problems have been solved, this does not mean that the above standard has already been adopted by a majority of digital artists. The current situation is that many highly professional, even pioneering digital painters have no idea how to get their work out of the computer and up on a wall. Many rely on the online gallery to offer quality prints of their work. If the printing process is contracted out, artists have no opportunity to personalize their work with a signature. To evaluate, and if necessary adjust, the color representation of the print - something only the artist can do - is also not possible.
Certification stimulates the development of a clear and trustworthy formula for the selling and buying of digital art. A certificate bears a mark of identity. This can be the signature of the artist or a personalized sign, watermark or hologram, a clone of which is attached to the artwork. The document contains a copyright declaration, it distinguishes between an original and an open or closed edition, states the size of a limited edition, binds the artist to deletion of the digital carrier, and conditions the display of the artwork after it is sold. A Standard Certificate of Unicity for a numerically unique print ('original' or '1/1') a Standard Certificate for a Limited Edition and a Standard Certificate for an Open Edition is regularly updated and freely available on this site.
Brushstroke gel: Water-soluble acrylic polymer
containing a UV inhibitor which helps protect the art from yellowing
and fading. Also used to recreate brushstrokes on digital paintings
printed on canvas. http://www.artandframingsolutions.com/BrushstrokeGel.htm
Don Archers blog, Digital art, artists and commentaries
Spyder calibration sensor
Carriers for digital painting:
Xpozer, Prints on polyester coated paper, floating, unframed mount (sRGB profile accepted)
Whitewall, Prints on Hahnemuele paper, canvas, brushed aluminum, dibond, perspex, (printer's color profile supplied, sRGB profile eccepted)
Drukwerkdeal, Postcards, large format prints on dibond and brushed aluminum, and postcards (printer's color profile supplied)
Certificates, For original, limited and open edition
Automatic conversion, photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Waterlogue, Automatic conversion of photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Many programs listed
Oneone perfect resize, (enlargement correction)
ZoomPro5, Ben Vista
Artograph,Tracer for manual enlargement of a small physical carrier, on a wall, canvas etc.
Overwiew of vector programs and file formats
Fractal art, video1
Fractal art, video2
Agora West 25th Street, New York, NY)
K16 Keizersgracht 16, 1015 CP Amsterdam, NL)
Hand painted copies:
Dafen Village, China: By artist, style, size
MOCA Museum of Computer Art (MOCA) of New York State University offers emerging directions in digital art an online platform since 1993. Annual competition in digital art, catalogues.
Programs for animation painting:
Pencil Traditional hand drawn 2D animation
Blender (open source)
Animation street (for iPad)
Animation Studio (for iPad)
Animation desk (for iPad en iPhone)
Animation desk (for iPad en iPhone)
Programs for painting on iPad and iPhone:
Adobe Eazel (raster)
Adobe ideas (vector)(in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
Programs for painting on PC and Mac:
Adobe Photoshop CS6
Programs for fractal painting:
Programs for vector painting:
Adobe ideas (iPad) (in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
Inkpad (iPad/iPhone) by Steve Sprang (open source)
CorelDraw for Windows
For artwork on paper
A Blog appArt, An overview of styles and features of apps and painting software by Ben Guerette
vector art, video
Blood sweat vector
Vectorization, online (raster to vector conversion):
Watermark, digimark, hologram:
A personalized watermark can be embedded in Photoshop
(c) 2013-2017 DigitalPainting.be Amsterdam - Gent
2017/09/13 New certificates (version 5.0)
2017/08/30 Update of 'characteristics'; 'uniqueness and limited editions'; 'links'
2017/08/22 Update of 'detailed survey'
2017/08/14 Update of 'brief overview'
2015/08/08 New certificates: (v.4 for originals, v.1 for editions)
2015/08/06 Major update 'Market for digital art'
2015/08/03 'About color'
2015/05/21 'File formats'
2015/05/01 'Pioneering digital artists'
2015/04/25 'Visual characteristics'